Baptism under fire

B Y - L A U R A - W E X L E R


Each morning at 8:00, a guard leads the new prisoners from the cell block and ushers them into plastic lawn chairs set in rows in a tiny courtroom at the Clarke County Jail. As the prisoners shuffle in—wearing blue jumpsuits for misdemeanor charges, orange for felonies—the guard may say, as on a morning in March: "Let's sit up and put our butts against the chairs. Don't speak unless you're spoken to."

In a visitation room at the Clarke County Jail, lawyer Joel Shiver (JD '91) interviews a Legal Aid client accused of stealing two packs of steaks from a grocery store.

Whereupon a woman dressed in plainclothes will enter the room, saying, "Good morning, folks, I'm Jan Hoffman, a paralegal with Legal Aid here in Athens. I'll be here to answer your questions."

Then Magistrate Judge Michael Coleman takes his seat at a desk on a raised platform. "This is a hearing in magistrate court just as if we were in the Clarke County courthouse," he says.

In the next hour, Coleman (AB '70, JD '80) pages through the prisoners' files, states the charges against them, asks a few questions, and sets bond. Those shifting and squirming in the lawn chairs are charged with passing bad checks, making terroristic threats, assault, cruelty to children, and aggravated sodomy. It is an average assortment for an average day. Coleman is stern when he looks into the prisoners' eyes. Later he will say the sternness is intentional; sometimes he's a priest, other times he's a drill sergeant.

Throughout the hearing, Hoffman writes down the names of those who say they cannot afford a lawyer to represent them, a figure that amounts to nearly 75 percent of all those accused of felonies in Athens-Clarke County. She'll then take that list to UGA's Legal Aid and Defender Clinic in downtown Athens.

On this day, as on most days, all the chairs in the lobby of the Legal Aid clinic are filled. Some people are here for the first time, waiting to be interviewed by the law students who will lead them into cubicles in the basement and ask for their version of the events. Some are here to consult with their lawyers, planning negotiations, defense strategies, appeals.

For those waiting in the lobby, the fact that this clinic falls within the University's domain doesn't mean much. The important thing is that a place like this exists—because it means an abstract constitutional right has been made concrete. The 13 Legal Aid lawyers will lead these people through the labyrinthine court system, plead on their behalf, make a bad situation better.

But for the 30 UGA law students who work at Legal Aid each semester, the University connection is crucial. It means this office is a living laboratory in which they'll transform theory into practice, learn to interview witnesses, stand up for the first time in a court of law.

And for Clarke and Oconee Counties, the fact that this office handled more than 3,500 criminal cases last year means the county governments ful- filled a legal obligation to their indigent citizenry in a cost-effective manner.

In short, the Legal Aid clinic provides legal representation and legal education. As the only public defender office in Georgia that is also a university law clinic, it stands out as a model of successful town and gown partnership.

If you are arrested in Athens or Oconee County, and cannot afford to pay your bond and get out of jail, this is what happens after the bond hearing:

You wait.

Within a few days, a law student like Bailey Brown will park his car in the jail's gravel lot, talk into the speaker box, walk to a door in the fence, and pass through. Once inside the jail, he'll pick up a phone and say a prisoner's name. Soon he'll be wearing an I.D. tag marked "Lawyer"—even though he isn't one yet.

The barbed-wire fence, the dim hallways, the tiny visitation rooms, the sudden closeness to a set of life experiences they've been fortunate enough to avoid—Legal Aid students say the first few visits to the jail are unforgettable.

"Here you are, stuck in a little bitty room with hardly any space to move. You can imagine how intimidating that is," says Joel Shiver (JD '91), a Legal Aid lawyer who spent 18 months as a student in the clinic. "I'd never met a murderer, much less been cramped into a little room with one."

"At first, I thought there were speakers in the cell block doors—they make such an ominous sound when they close," says Brown, a third-year law student from Atlanta. "Once the novelty wore off, I generally disliked going to the jail."

But jail visits are a crucial part of the curriculum of Legal Aid I, the first course in which students in the clinic enroll. Students must record the client's version of the incident, note possible witnesses, and obtain a criminal history. That means finding a way to understand and be understood, to bridge what are often vast educational and cultural gaps. Sometimes it's scary, sometimes it's frustrating. Always it's challenging.

"You're there to listen to other people's problems and to gather information people don't want to tell," says former Legal Aid student Ed Skorupski (JD '99). "There have been times I've had an emotional reaction to things people have said, but you can't let them know that. It's not the view from the suburbs."

During weekly meetings with director Russell Gabriel (JD '85), Legal Aid students learn the tenets of criminal law and discuss their caseload.

At the bottom of the interview sheet is an important note to these future lawyers: "Remind client NOT to talk to anyone about the case except Legal Aid."

Aside from conducting interviews, Legal Aid I students meet weekly with Russell Gabriel (JD '85), the clinic's director since 1996, and work closely with an assigned Legal Aid lawyer. Students in their third year of law school may enroll in Legal Aid II; under Georgia's Third Year Practice Act, they actually represent clients in court.

During his semester at Legal Aid, Brown organized a file for a murder case, visited crime scenes, and interviewed witnesses. He also researched and wrote a memo arguing that a client's kidnapping charges should be merged into aggravated assault, thereby allowing for a reduced sentence. When the lawyer Brown was working under took his memo to court, the sitting judge agreed to merge the charges.

"Writing the memo was something I took very seriously because it was going to have an impact on the defendant's life," says Brown. "At the trial, I stood next to him at the table—my knuckles white, his knuckles white. I guess we took 35 years off his sentence."

In an essay he penned at the end of his Legal Aid semester, Brown wrote that "a defense attorney bears heavy burdens . . . He bears the burden of grotesque secrets that would have others not bound by attorney-client privilege scurrying for a counselor or priest . . . He bears the burden of social stigma . . . I don't know how long I could carry these burdens. Sometimes I think the public defenders are the last of the moral noblesse. Sometimes I think I'll go into product liability."


Hanging on the wall of Legal Aid lawyer Shiver's cluttered office are two buttons. One reads: "Public Defenders: the best lawyer money can't buy." The other: "In God we trust. All others we cross-examine."

Taken together, these slogans illuminate the clinic's ruling ethic: to provide poor people with high quality representation. As for cross-examining everyone but God, well, these are folks who are unafraid to risk social pillorying in the pursuit of justice. As Skorupski put it, "These people are cool. They're fighting the righteous battle."

Shiver is a former country music disc jockey, Gabriel a potter, and assistant director Jo Carol Nesset-Sale a former high school teacher. Legal Aid lawyer John Donnelly (JD '92) writes for Athens' alternative magazine Flagpole.

In short, these lawyers are not button-down corporate types. They're idealists who get upset daily over incarceration rates, racism in the justice system, capital punishment. It's not that they think all their clients are innocent. Rather, they think the poor deserve as effective legal representation as the rich. They think the Law—imperfect as it is—should be objectively imperfect, applied without regard to race, class, or position.

On a typical day, Legal Aid lawyers spend the morning in court. In the afternoon they do legal research, investigate crime scenes, locate witnesses, or visit the jail. Throughout the day, they counsel and mentor the law students working under them. The combination of lawyering and teaching makes the fast-paced office oftentimes frenetic.

Nesset-Sale often visits her clients at the jail in the evenings and on Saturdays—because it's her only chance to do so. And though she doesn't begrudge that extra time and energy, she does note that Legal Aid lawyers constantly struggle to stay on top of debilitating caseloads. The Legal Aid lawyer assigned to the local municipal court, for example, handled 773 cases in 1998. According to guidelines set by the Georgia Indigent Defense Council, one attorney should handle a maximum of 300 misdemeanor cases per year.

"It's very much a juggling act," says Gabriel. "I'm constantly conscious of working with the law school and its students, making sure they have a valid educational experience, and running a successful public defender office."

One day during the class Nesset-Sale teaches at the law school, she had to set her cell phone on the podium with her lecture notes.

"I had a jury out in a rape case, and the only way I could make my class commitment was to assure the judge I'd take my cell phone," she says. "In fact, the phone rang and I had to run out."

Every day is hectic for Colin Fieman and Jo Carol Nesset-Sale, who are teachers and Legal Aid lawyers. Here, they're arguing a motion in superior court.

By all accounts, Gabriel and his staff meet—and far exceed—the demands of their dual focus.

"The Athens office is perceived as one of the best-run public defender offices in the state, and the best training ground for criminal defense lawyers," says Michael Shapiro, executive director of the Georgia Indigent Defense Council. "Lawyers who pass through that office are routinely very highly recommended, well-trained, and very professional." The GIDC recently bestowed its "Commitment to Excellence" award upon the clinic.

The clinic is one of only 14 dedicated public defender offices in Georgia; most of the state's 159 counties don't have one. In fact, the idea that indigent people should be guaranteed legal representation is a relatively recent idea, one that came into vogue in the past three decades. Bob Peckham, a retired army colonel who directed the Legal Aid and Defender Clinic from 1968 to 1986, remembers it was quite a battle to get things started.

"Judge [James] Barrow went to the county commission and got a couple thousand dollars for us," says Peckham. "Every time we'd get a little bit more money, we'd hire another lawyer. We were doing 150 cases each year, and working all the time."

Gov. Roy Barnes (AB '69, JD '72) remembers his time as a law student in the Legal Aid office run by Peckham. "We'd go up there and have cases just running out our ears—and I'm sure it's still that way," says Barnes. "You want to talk about baptism under fire, it was an immediate baptism under fire."

Each year, the clinic received more and more money from the county, until it became the de facto public defender office. Today, roughly 90 percent of the $1 million budget comes from the Athens-Clarke and Oconee County governments; the remaining 10 percent is funded by UGA.

From a logistical standpoint, a reliable public defender office saves both judges and private practice defense lawyers time and hassle. Without the clinic, Superior Court Judge Steve Jones estimates he'd appoint 10 to 15 cases each day to private lawyers—who would earn significantly less defending indigent clients than those with deeper pockets. From a judicial standpoint, Jones is required to intervene if he sees a defendant in his courtroom receiving substandard representation; such intervention costs time and money.

"If there's a circuit in this state that has better representation for poor people, I want to see it," says Jones (BBA '78, JD '87), who used to try cases against Legal Aid lawyers as an assistant D.A. "I can look you in the eye and say that anybody who goes to the Legal Aid office gets good representation. Those lawyers care, and they do a good job."

Jones attributes the high quality of the Legal Aid office to the partnership between Clarke and Oconee counties, and the University. He is proud, he says, to be a citizen of a county—and an alum of a university—that dedicates money and time to providing equal representation to indigent defendants.

Says Jones: "Our whole system means nothing if we say, indirectly through our actions, that if you're poor, you don't deserve good representation."


Alongside the certificates and degrees on Gabriel's office wall is the photograph of a woman accused of murdering her 13-year-old son. Gabriel asked the woman's mother for the picture; she is a defendant in one of two death penalty cases he is currently handling.

"I think it's important—both for me and my students—to keep in mind who our clients are," says Gabriel. "If the students happen to be in my office and ask whose photograph it is, it gives me a chance to explain."

What Gabriel means is that he gets to depict his client differently than the newspapers. During any given week in Athens, the local newspaper reports the arrest or trial of an accused thief or drug dealer or batterer. More often than not, the article mentions that the University of Georgia Legal Aid and Defender Clinic is representing the defendant. Consider the case of Anthony Scieszka—better known as the "Five Points Rapist." In a high-publicity trial, Scieszka, charged with the rape of five UGA students in 1995 and 1996, was represented by Nesset-Sale. That means a University employee was representing a man accused of harming UGA students—a man who was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

As far as any awkwardness relating to her association with the University, Nesset-Sale says it wasn't an issue.

"Although we're funded in part by the University, we see ourselves as having a wholly independent function," says Nesset-Sale."The University has been wonderful at acknowledging our independence."

What Nesset-Sale is saying, essentially, is that the University is involved in granting the constitutional right of legal counsel to residents of Clarke and Oconee Counties. That right is not called into question because of sticky PR situations.

"The lawyer who has to defend the criminal has a tough job," says David Shipley, dean of UGA's law school. "But that's part of what we're trying to teach during three years of law school."

On a rainy afternoon, Shiver and Skorupski walk through the halls of the Clarke County Jail to Charlie 4, one of the visiting rooms, sit down at the table, and wait for their client to be brought in. The man wears a blue jumpsuit; he is accused of stealing two packs of steaks from a local grocery store. He was allegedly drunk while he did it, and was charged with theft and public intoxication.

Shiver and the prisoner recognize each other from a previous case. After a warm greeting, Shiver gets down to business: "How much is your bond?"

"Six thousand, sir," the man says.

"That's too much," says Shiver.

Shiver asks if the prisoner has a job. The man says no, so Shiver tells him about all the construction work in Athens. He asks about the man's religion. The man says he's a Muslim.

"Now if they'd said you'd stolen some pork," jokes Skorupski, "we'd have an easier time."

They all laugh easily. They know they're on the same team.

Later, Shiver and Skorupski don't talk much on the walk back to the parking lot. Shiver is thinking about how to get his client's bail lowered to $600, an amount he could afford, or at least borrow. Skorupski is reviewing one of the more subtle ironies of the criminal justice system: Those who, quite literally, can't afford to stay in jail, can't afford to post bond and get out.

As the two men drive out of the gravel lot—back toward downtown Athens—the jail gets smaller and smaller in their rearview mirror, and finally disappears. But they never really leave it behind.

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